Position battles will highlight spring

Gophers want quarterback, offensive and defensive playmakers to emerge.

Josh Katzenstein

The Gophers football team will open spring practice Tuesday with many unanswered questions for the 2010 season. MinnesotaâÄôs tough schedule next fall includes a Sept. 18 matchup with Southern California and a challenging Big Ten slate. But before the season begins, the team must figure out who will be playing come September. Head coach Tim Brewster said Monday the only starting jobs currently safe for the upcoming season are those of place kicker Eric Ellestad and punter Dan Orseske. A major competition will be at quarterback, where MarQueis Gray and Moses Alipate will have a chance to compete with last seasonâÄôs captain and three-year starter Adam Weber, who enters with a clear advantage. âÄúI certainly really expect [Weber] to step up to the challenge this spring and go out and compete his tail off every single day,âÄù Brewster said. The Gophers have lost two straight Insight Bowls, and finding a leader at quarterback could help them build further. âÄúWeâÄôve gone to bowl games; thatâÄôs been OK,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúWe want to take that next step, and the quarterback position is such an important position in helping us take that next step.âÄù Under new co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton, who was instrumental in the development of Detroit LionsâÄô quarterback Matthew Stafford last season, the team seeks an every-down, complete quarterback, Brewster said. âÄúWeâÄôre working towards our quarterback being a full-time quarterback and not a guy that comes in and runs the zone read or option,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúWe want our quarterback to learn the whole package.âÄù The new expectations do not appear to bode well for Gray. As a freshman last season, Gray was used primarily on running plays and sparingly played consecutive downs. While Gray offers the size, speed and athleticism the GophersâÄô offense needs, the image of his fourth-quarter fumble in the 2009 Insight Bowl looms. âÄúOne of the things MarQueis really has to understand is weâÄôre not going to have a quarterback play who doesnâÄôt understand ball security,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúWe canâÄôt have a quarterback who runs the football and fumbles the football. MarQueis understands that.âÄù In addition to the quarterback competition, the Gophers need offensive playmakers to establish themselves and replace the departed wide receiver Eric Decker. Brewster said he has challenged junior-to-be DaâÄôJon McKnight to step into a No. 1 wide receiver role and expects Brandon Green and Troy Stoudermire to contribute also. The Gophers were mostly unsuccessful in establishing a strong running game in 2009. They averaged just 3.0 yards per carry and finished the season last in the Big Ten in rushing. Junior-to-be Duane Bennett led the team with 98 rushing attempts for 376 yards and will likely see a wealth of the attempts in 2010. But teammates DeLeon Eskridge (74 rushes for 294 yards in 2009) and four-star recruit Lamonte Edwards could give Bennett a run for the starting gig. On the defense, Minnesota seeks a linebacker corps to replace last seasonâÄôs senior trio of Lee Campbell , Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence . Gary Tinsley , Keanon Cooper and Sam Maresh are among those vying for the jobs, but as with many positions, Brewster said Tuesday marks the start of a process toward finding the best players. âÄúThereâÄôs going to be daily competition, and thatâÄôs so exciting for me,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúA situation where each and every day, if [a player] isnâÄôt at his best, someone can step in there and take his place.âÄù